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Yanagawa Shigenobu (柳川重信)


Yanagawa Shigenobu (柳川重信 1787–1832, act. c. 1810s–1832) was an Edo artist who worked briefly in Osaka (1822-25). One of his Edo addresses was in Honjo Yanagawa-chô, which gave rise to his surname "Yanagawa" (柳川). He was a pupil, then son-in-law, and finally adopted son of the Edo master artist Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北齋 1760-1849), although Shigenobu's work also reveals some influence from Utagawa Kunisada. Over the course of his active years, Shigenobu designed illustrated books, prints, and paintings. He covered several genres, including yakusha-e (actor portraits: 役者絵), bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画), fûkeiga (landscapes: 風景画), surimono (privately issued specialty prints: 摺物) on various themes, and shunga (explicit erotica: 春画). The folllowing discussion will focus on a four examples from Shigenobu's time in Osaka.

Shigenobu I nerimono
Tôto ("Eastern Capital") Yanagawa Shigenobu I (東都 柳川重信)
("Yanagawa Shigenobu of the Eastern Capital"); Artist seal: Yanagawa (柳川)
Yaegumo (八重雲) of the Wataya (わた屋) as a fujidaiko (dancer with folded fan: 富士太鼓), 6/1822
Series: Osaka Shinmachi nerimono (Costume parade in Shinmachi, Osaka: 大坂新町祢りもの)
Woodblock print, ôban (380 x 259 mm)

The official licensed pleasure quarter in Osaka was called the Shinmachi ("New Quarters": 新町). At its height, there were 56 ageya ("houses of assignation": 揚屋) and as many as 1,200 prostitutes in Shinmachi. Both it and the smaller, unlicensed Shimanouchi (lit., "inside the island": 島の内) district to the southwest hosted nerimono sugata (costume parades: ねり物姿) featuring waitresses, geisha, and courtesans performing skits or pantomimes about well-known figures from contemporary society, theater, history, and legend. In this colorful pageant, the women were sometimes accompanied by decorative floats carrying musicians and dancers.

Shigenobu did some of his best work in Osaka when he produced around thirteen to fifteen designs for a series of deluxe ôban prints depicting geisha for the series Osaka Shinmachi nerimono (Costume parade in Shinmachi: 大坂新町祢りもの) circa 6/1822. In the print illustrated above, Yaegumo (八重雲) of the Wataya (わた屋) is shown in a pantomime as a fujidaiko (dancer with a folded fan: 富士太鼓). It may be that she performs in a kyôran no mai ("dance of madness": 狂乱の舞). Many of the skits in this nerimono were inspired by the (能) Theater. Shigenobu's print is signed Tôto Yanagawa Shigenobu (東都柳川重信), where Tôtô refers to the city of Edo (lit., "Eastern Capital"), and it is sealed Yanagawa (柳川).

Prints depicting women of the nerimono represent an important exception to the tenacious focus on kabuki for which kamigata-e are known. These visual records of participants in the parades offer glimpses into alternative entertainments beyond the kabuki and puppet theaters, and clues regarding what the citizens of nineteenth-century Osaka found fascinating and enjoyable. The nerimono were large-scale fantasies within a special world of asobi (play or amusement: 遊) where pleasure women, geisha, teahouse waitresses, musicians, actors, theater patrons, and bon vivants eagerly sought escape from everyday life. (Incidentally, prints from Shigenobu's 1922 nerimono series reached Europe at least by the 1850s, one source being seven designs donated in 1855 by W. L. de Sturler, Minister of Public Instruction, to the Département des Manuscrits, Bibliothèque nationale de France.) For other examples of nerimono prints by Yanagawa Shigenobu I, see Momotsuru, Hinaji-dayû, and Hanazono-dayû.

Shigenobu I and Hokushu 1822 rikan as yorimasa
(Top) Shunkôsai Hokushû: The late Arashi Kitsusaburô I (一代 嵐橘三郎) as Yorimasa (頼政)
(Left) Yanagawa Shigenobu I: Arashi Kitsusaburô II (二代 嵐橘三郎) as Hyôgo no kami Yorimasa (兵庫頭頼政 頼政)
in Yorimasa nue monogatari (頼政鵺物語), Naka Theater, Osaka, 9/1822
Woodblock print, ôban (372 x 263 mm)

One of the more interesting ôban-format actor prints by Shigenobu published while he resided in Osaka was a collaborative work (gassaku: 合作) with Shunkôsai Hokushû (see image immediately above). The actor in the roundel at the top right is Arashi Rikan II (嵐璃寛 also Arashi Kitsusaburô I 嵐橘三郎) who died in the ninth month of 1821. Hokushû was responsible for this likeness, showing the great Rikan I in one of his signature roles, Minamoto no Sanmi Yorimasa (源三位頼政). Portrayed below him is his stage successor, Arashi Rikan II also as Hyôgo no kami Yorimasa (Head of the arsenal Yorimasa: 兵庫頭頼政 頼政), but drawn by Shigenobu. Although linked to a specific performance (Yorimasa nue monogatari, "Tale of Yorimasa and the Nue": 頼政鵺物語), Naka Theater, Osaka, 9/1822), the print also commemorates the one-year memorial for Rikan I and the succession by Rikan II to the earlier name of Arashi Kitsusaburô II, which he used from 8/1822 to 8/1828, when he finally became Arashi Rikan II.

An inscription nearest the roundel reads, "I have received the name [Kitsusaburô, 橘三郎) of my teacher on the first anniversary of his death." On the left of this text is a poem, also by Rikan II: Shi no wo / itadaku kasa ni / hito shigure (Grateful for my teacher's beneficence / pouring down upon my rain hat / like a sudden autumn storm). There is a pun on the word "storm" (arashi, 嵐), which is the lineage name of both actors.

Shigenobu I and Hokushu 1822 rikan as yorimasa
Yanagawa Shigenobu I (seal at lower left, 柳川)
Geisha and guest on the veranda of a teahouse, circa 1/1823
Carver: Tani Seikô (red gourd seal at lower right with his name, 谷清好)
Poetry club: Tsuru-ren (鶴連) in Osaka, crane emblem at upper right
Woodblock print, shikishiban surimono (217 x 186 mm)

Shigenobu is particularly admired for his surimono, many of which he produced while collaborating in Osaka with the superbly gifted block carver Tani Seikô (谷清好 act. c. 1810s-1831 in Edo and Osaka). Seikô produced nearly all of the finest surimono issued in Osaka during his most active period (1822-1831). Shigenobu was the first among a number of Edo artists to design surimono and single-sheet commercial prints in Osaka; others included Yashima Gakutei (八島岳亭; 1786-1868) and Katsushika Taito II (二代 葛飾戴斗 act. c. 1810-1853). Soon after his arrival in Osaka, Shigenobu collaborated with Seikô and the Tsuru-ren (Crane poetry circle: 鶴連) on a set probably comprising ten shikishiban (square surimono: 色紙判) portraits of costumed geisha in the fifth month of 1822. In the first month of 1823, Shigenobu and Seikô worked together on a deluxe book with fifty portraits of poets from the Tsuru-ren (Crane poetry circle: 鶴連), all of which Shigenobu had drawn. The compilation was titled Kyôka gojûnin isshu (Fifty playful-verse poets: 狂歌五十人一首). Moreover, from 1823 to 1825, Shigenobu designed approximately thirty fine surimono on various themes, at least eighteen in collaboration with (or sponsored by) the Tsuru-ren, with the woodblocks cut and printed once again by Tani Seikô. An example is shown immediately above. The carving and printing are very fine, with colors ranging from saturated to muted, all in delicate balance, and with many of the thin lines printed in gray rather than black. The silhouetted figures in the background provide an effective contrast with the emphatic colors in the kimono. The geisha's face is surely reminiscent of Hokusai's slim beauties during the so-called "Sori" phase early in his career (1795-1804).

Around that time Shigenobu also adopted an unusual format measuring approximately 210 x 380 mm, as in the example shown below. One is reminded of Hokusai's various yoko-nagaban surimono (long horizontal privately issued prints) from which Shigenobu might have taken his cue. Kikugawa Eizan also used a similar format for a few bijinga c. 1810. Suitable to the aspect ratio of this sheet size, Shigenobu portrayed a reclining geisha who is holding a song libretto and samisen (三味線), a three-stringed, long-necked instrument. In this instance, the inscriptions are not kyôka (31-syllable poems; see the Kyôka Craze), but plaintive songs about love, composed in a 7-5 syllabic meter (shichigo chô: 七五調). The beauty's physiognomy seems to show a dual influence, the Katsushika style (Hokusai) and the Utagawa manner (Kunisada). Shigenobu I has signed as "Edo Yanagawa Shigenobu" (江戸柳川重信), indicating that this work was published in Osaka, as the "Edo" prefix would not have been required had it been published in that city.

Shigenobu I surimono

Two songs have been inscribed on the print. The first song is signed "Mitsukado" (trans. R. Keyes): Kaeseshi ato ni / musuboreshi / nemidaregami no / tokekamuru / kokoro kumoreba / makaitaru / awasekagami o / miru ni tsuke / utsuru wa nushi no / ushirokage (After being sent away, I felt downcast and could not even comb my sleep-disheveled hair. My heart clouded; I turned to my mirrors, but all I could see was the reflection of my master, going away).

The second song is signed "Hamanari" (trans. R. Keyes): Wakare no kago no / ashi hayaku / miokuru ato no / kurushisa wa / omoi tomaranu/ ikitsue no / doko e kokoro no / oroso yara (The palanquin of parting was swift; the pain of seeing him off will not cease; at what destination may I unburden my heart?).

Yanagawa Shigenobu's Names

Surnames (geimei):
Suzuki (鈴木)
Yanagawa (柳川)

Art pseudonyms ():
Raito (雷斗)
Kinsai (琴齋)
Reisai (鈴齋)
Ushôsai (雨蕉齋)

© 1999-2021 by John Fiorillo


  • Floyd, Phylis: "Documentary Evidence for the Availability of Japanese Imagery in Europe in Nineteenth-Century Public Collections," in: The Art Bulletin, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Mar. 1986), pp. 105-141 (note for nos. 54-60 on p. 135).
  • C. Andrew Gerstle: "Representing rivalry and transition in kabuki," in: Andon. Leiden: Society for Japanese Arts, nos. 72/73 special issue, October 2002, pp. 58, no. 8.
  • Keyes, Roger: The Art of Surimono; Privately published Japanese woodblock prints and books in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. London: Sothebys, 1985, vol. 2, no. 269, p. 314.
  • Keyes, Roger: "Tani Seikô and his circle," in: Andon. Leiden: Society for Japanese Arts, nos. 72/73 special issue, October 2002, pp. 12-26.
  • Nakade, Akifumi: Watakushi no kamigata-e monogatari: nishiki-e hen (The Story of Kamigata Color Prints from My Collection:Compilation of color prints: 私の上方絵物語:錦絵編). Osaka: Nakao Shôsendo, 2005, pp. 173-180, no. 146.
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